Newbie Strasburg? Meet ol' Lincecum
Pitching phenoms can control the games, but the expectations? Not so much
Stephen Strasburg said something just about perfect the other day, not long after getting pulled in the seventh inning of an eventual 5-0 loss by his Washington Nationals to the Atlanta Braves.
"I really tried to go out there and overcome all the obstacles," Strasburg said. "I don't really know what the obstacles were ... "
Exactly. But, then, that's the price of phenomenon, isn't it? Those obstacles just jump up out of nowhere, created by anyone, based upon any level of expectation that could possibly be pulled from the air.
In Strasburg's case, some of the obstacles are obvious enough, depending upon when you look. Monday night in Atlanta, his teammates couldn't score (not unique, as the Nationals have piled up a total of one run in Strasburg's last three starts), they kicked a double-play grounder behind him in the fateful seventh, and the Braves are pretty strong in general. Strasburg was merely good, not shutout-great. It happens.
But as for the bigger picture? We have someone we'd like you to meet.
As Tim Lincecum prepared to stride to the mound Friday night in Colorado, it was with some anticipation and more than a little bit of anxious curiosity that San Francisco Giants fans looked on. After all, Lincecum this season has appeared less than dominant, his fastball something short of blazingly overpowering, his command just this side of menacing.
In other words, Lincecum has pitched like a human.
That's what an 8-3 record and 3.13 ERA will get you when the price of phenomenon keeps going up, and that is where Lincecum stands today. And while Lincecum and Strasburg never will be confused for one another on the mound, they share a common pressure. Each is young, each is clearly talented, and each already is in strange territory as regards expectation.
Lincecum's case, of course, is not an exact parallel. He's a two-time Cy Young Award winner in the National League, which means much of the hubbub surrounding him is based on accomplishment and not purely on future projection. But the hyperventilation is the same, and so is the sense of "failure" when things refuse to go according to perfect plan.
Prior to last Sunday, Lincecum had won three straight starts and done so in a fashion that suggested he might be regaining the form that pushed him to a 33-12 record over the two previous seasons. But this has been a year already in which the phenom hasn't always appeared ready to plunder the baseball world.
He has occasionally lost his velocity, as was the case Sunday, when his fastball dropped suddenly in the second inning. Lincecum was pulled after three innings and 79 pitches against Boston, one of the shortest outings of his four-season career. Afterward, his manager, Bruce Bochy, said, "He was done. He was fatigued."
Lincecum at times this season has appeared to lose faith in his fastball as an out pitch. (Against the Red Sox, he threw a full-count changeup to David Ortiz that landed in the Splashdown area of McCovey Cove for a monster home run.) He has, at times, lost the plate and begun walking hitters at an abnormally high rate. He has, at times, struggled to hold runners at first base or even to appear terribly interested that they were on base at all.
And for all that, you're still looking at 8-3, 3.13 heading into a game against the Rockies. Those are fine numbers for most any pitcher in baseball, so long as they are not named Lincecum. Because it's Lincecum, the theories -- injury, blister on pitching hand, lack of concentration, physical fallout from his violent delivery -- absolutely abound.
Strasburg, similarly, already is gazing at his own long shadow. The story of the first-round draft pick with the $15 million contract has been told now to the point of legend, and the book on rookie legends in baseball is short and not always encouraging.
The loss to the Braves put Strasburg at 2-2, with a 2.27 ERA. Those are remarkable numbers, particularly in that a 2.27 ERA should probably net you more than two victories in five starts. But the cult of personality surrounding Strasburg already holds such sway that his every start is thoroughly dissected for signs of weakness, signs of greatness, signs of superstardom.
Help is never far on that front. Braves manager Bobby Cox wasted no time in dubbing the 6-foot-4 right-hander "a Hall of Famer in the making," and as straight hyperbole goes, that's fairly solid stuff. I've heard otherwise reasonable people making a straight-faced case for why Strasburg is going to go down as one of the greats in the game.
Well, sure, maybe. But just for the sake of the conversation, ask what Strasburg would have to do in order to actually, consistently outrun his own hype. The Braves' pitcher on Monday night, Tim Hudson, compiled a 106-48 record in his first seven seasons in the majors. Will Strasburg do better than a plus-58 to .500 performance over the next seven years?
How about Lincecum's teammate Barry Zito? Pretty good pitcher, won a Cy Young at an early age with the A's, now considered a radical under-performer in San Francisco because he makes a fortune and hasn't posted a plus-.500 record for the Giants. But in Zito's first seven seasons, he went 102-63 and had people lining him up for all-time greatness. It's no yellow-brick road.
Lincecum himself arrived at his Friday night date with the Rockies sporting a 48-20 career mark, a 2.93 ERA and 793 strikeouts in 702 1/3 innings. He has done so while pitching for not-great Giants teams, just as Strasburg is laboring for a mediocre Washington franchise.
That much, at least, is fate. There's no doubt that, in a team game, the players surrounding a pitcher go a long way toward determining his legacy. Just try telling that to any of the folks who are shouting from the rafters that Strasburg is the surest thing they've ever seen -- right up to the moment that they start wondering what's wrong.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the top 10 sports books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.